Monday, December 31, 2012

Electionwatch 8 – two cheers for the centre-left primaries

The Italian electoral law, the Porcellum or pig’s dinner, has fixed party lists. The party or the party leader decides on the order. If you win 25% of the vote, then the top quarter of the list are elected; the voter can only choose a party and can do nothing to influence which of the party’s candidates should be elected. The Israelis have a similar system and will be using it next month.

After a very successful primary campaign for the leadership, the Democratic Party (PD) decided to repeat the scheme for their parliamentary candidates. They worked very quickly and effectively to draw up rules and organise elections across the country. The aim was to give voters the choice that the electoral system denies them as well as guaranteeing some gender balance (voters in the primaries can vote for two candidates; one male, one female).

On Saturday and yesterday, party members and sympathisers voted for the candidates that they would like to see fight the elections in February. My immediate presumption was that the primaries would establish the order of the fixed party list and therefore the likelihood of a candidate actually being elected.

I was wrong.

First of all, Party Secretary, Pierluigi Bersani, chooses the people for the top of the lists. There are 26 constituencies for the Chamber and 20 regional constituencies for the Senate. Then the national executive chooses up to 10% of the candidates (about a 100) on the basis of “competence and openness towards society”. That counts for almost a third of likely parliamentarians.

The rest are not ranked directly by party activists though; today’s primaries are organised on a province basis while the constituencies are much bigger, usually regionally. So, as Chiara Geloni, chief editor of the PD’s television station, YouDem, told me, “in my province of Massa Carrara, the party decided that we should have two candidates at the elections so we chose two from the four in the primaries.”

The Tuscan constituency has 38 deputies and if the PD does very well, they might win 20 seats (in 2008, they had 19) so candidates 1-15 are sure of election, 16-22 are possibles and 23-38 are no-hopers. Geloni was not able to tell me where the two winners from Massa would be placed on the list or whether the man or the woman would be first “that will be decided by the Regional and National executives”. They will also decide on the order for the Senate candidates. The final results are expected on Wednesday.

So at the end of the day, the exercise was rather less than a triumph of transparency and democracy. The leader and the secretariat did not let the activists decide who would stand the best chance of being elected as the Americans do in their primaries and, indeed as the PD did in its own leadership primaries last month.

But it would be ungenerous to carp too much and accuse the PD of residual communist control. No party anywhere in the world allows militants to decide all the posts. In Italy, only the PD and its allies even staged primaries. At a local level, the “wrong” ie non-party-sponsored candidate has won on more than one occasion. And then gone on to win the mayoral election like Giulio Pisapia in Milan and Luigi De Magistris in Naples.

Angelino Alfano proposed primaries for the centre-right in order to give himself some legitimacy beyond Berlusconi’s investiture. But then Berlusconi couldn’t resist coming back into play and the PdL was worried that they could not manage the PD’s 3 million turnout and so would be perceived as losers. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) held their primaries on line with some doubts as to the reliability and transparency of the process. In any case only 95,000 people voted.

Mario Monti and the centre haven’t given themselves enough time even to think about primaries.

So all in all, the PD primaries have been a success. The leadership process gave the party huge coverage and a big boost in the opinion polls hitting 38% briefly. They are now down to 33-35% but still doing well. Pierluigi Bersani has established himself as the clear and undisputed leader not only of the PD but of a centre-left coalition that goes from Bruno Tabacci in the centre to Nichi Vendola on the left. And finally, 3 million people turned out to vote in November and a million this weekend; they paid €2 each; €8 million is a useful start to an election campaign. Many of them left phone numbers or emails so will be contacted during the campaign and some will campaign themselves. So even if the people in my local PD office did not know exactly what everyone was voting for, the overall effect was certainly positive not just for the PD but for Italian democracy in general.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speeches will be given by Paul Ginsborg and Gianfranco Pasquino.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Election watch 7 – Election law basics. This little piggy is complicated…

For the last year all the political parties and their leaders agreed loudly that the 2005 electoral law was unjust and inappropriate and should be changed. The man who guided it through Parliament, the Northern League’s Roberto Calderoli, called it a porcata (pig’s mess) back then and Italy's top political analyst Giovanni Sartori immediately dubbed it with a dog-Latin tag Porcellum.

Every month or so, President Napolitano reminded Parliament and the parties that time was passing and the old law was still in place. They answered with a ritual “it’ll be ready in a fortnight”. The parties and parliamentary committees discussed nerdy and arcane distinctions between single member constituencies, double ballots and preference votes… but in the end came to no conclusions and the law is unchanged.

This should surprise no one as the Porcellum gives complete power to party leaders to decide who gets elected and it also gives a hefty premium to the largest party or coalition. Silvio Berlusconi and his PdL wanted to keep control of the candidates and Pierluigi Bersani and the PD were not averse to taking 55% of the seats with only 35% of the vote, a quite probable result.

So as the election campaign gets under way, it’s worth looking at the rules and the playing field that they are competing on.

Italy has perfect bicameralism – its two houses have equal power as in the US but very different from the UK or France, say. In order to govern, a coalition needs a majority in the Senate and the Chamber.

The Chamber has 630 deputies so the majority is 316. There are twenty six multi-member constituencies to elect 617 deputies. The other 13 come from the Valle d’Aosta single member constituency and 12 representing Italians abroad. The party or coalition that wins a relative majority automatically takes a premium of 55% on the 617 equal to 340 seats. In 2006, Prodi’s Unione won 0.1% (or c. 70,000) more than Berlusconi’s coalition and took the premium.

There are thresholds in order to qualify of seats. A coalition must poll 10% with each single component party taking 2%. A party standing by itself must poll 4%.

There seems to be an incentive to put together the broadest possible coalition in order to maximise the chances of being the biggest group and winning the premium. This is what Prodi did in 2006 but the coalition was too broad and unravelled after only two years. In 2007, Walter Veltroni gambled that a single and united party would stand a better chance; he founded the Democratic Party which was the main cause of the Prodi coalition falling apart. Berlusconi took up the challenge and founded his single party, the Popolo delle Libertà by uniting his own Forza Italia and the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale. The PdL swept the board in the 2008 elections but it too started showing cracks after two years in practice losing its majority in 2011.

The candidates who actually become deputies are those at the top of the list, down to the percentage the party polled. In simple terms, in a constituency with 40 deputies, a party which polls 30% will have the first 12 on their list elected. The order of the list is decided by the party, not the voters.

Today it is highly likely that Bersani’s PD in coalition with Nichi Vendola’s left wing SEL (Sinistra, Ecologia, Libertà – Left, Ecology, Freedom) will win the relative majority in the Chamber.

The Senate is much less certain.

There are 315 seats up for election and the system works on the same principle as the Chamber and gives a premium of 55% to the winning list or coalition but at the regional rather than national level.

The threshold is double the Chamber’s; 20% for a coalition and 4% for each single component and 8% for parties outside a coalition. This is why Monti’s supporters have decided to present a single list in the Senate as singly they would not reach the 8% threshold.

There are 20 regions. The traditional “red” regions (Communist once upon a time - Emilia-Romagna, the Marches, Tuscany and Umbria) will almost certainly give the PD a majority. The “white” regions (Christian Democrat – Venetia, Lombardy and parts of the south) are much less certain. Now that there is a strong centrist option with Monti, the votes will be evenly split and even in the red belt, a protest vote for Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) or the new Arancione (Orange) movement could cause problems for Bersani.

The electoral system means that American terms and techniques will be used. Whoever wins Lombardy takes 27 (out of 49) seats; Latium 16/28. Both regions will be campaigning for their regional governments at the same time and the centre left is hoping that disgust at the outgoing centre-right’s corruption will not only give them a regional victory but will bring them the Senate in tow. Sicily with its 25 seats (14 to the relative majority) voted in October and returned a centre left government. These are the key “swing regions”.

The coalitions must indicate a leader (not, strictly speaking a candidate for prime minister as the President has the prerogative of choosing the prime minister). The debate over the last week was whether, and then how Mario Monti would be present in the centrist coalition. In his pre-Christmas press conference he was highly critical of politics based on leaders rather than programmes. Now he has become a “leader” himself.

The last important technical element of the Porcellum is the obligation to present lists of candidates supported by citizens’ signatures… more than 120,000 for new parties (the exact number depends on the number of registered voters). Not an easy task. But two days ago, Parliament amended that section of the law reducing the necessary number by 75% for new parties outside Parliament and by a further 60% for breakaway groups within the old Parliament. That means that Grillo will have to find around 30,000 signatures and Ignazio La Russa former minister and outgoing deputy who created his own group a week ago will have to find around 12,000. The old saying in Italian is “fatta la legge, gabbato lo santo” “as soon as the law is made, the saint is made a fool”.

There is life yet in this little pig.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg.

Previous Election Watch Blogs
1. 15 July Nine months to Elections.
2. 28 July Summer
3. 9 Sept. Monti succeeds Monti? The temperature rises. Berlusconi again, “The White Thing” and left in disarray.
4. 30 Sept. All aboard the Monti bandwagon.
5. 13 Oct. Elections Watch 5. Disintegrating regions.
6. 2 Nov Election Watch 6. Berlusconi unleashed and Sicilian elections.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Europontifex Maximus

Two days before the Pope’s Christmas homily, Mario Monti delivered his own sermon. It was not a call for peace like the Pope’s; on the contrary, it contained a string of deadly barbs mostly aimed at Monti’s predecessor, Silvio Berlusconi and in Monti’s ever-polite way was a gauntlet thrown down.

Berlusconi picked it up immediately and has been working the media overtime ever since.

But Monti did only criticise Berlusconi for inconsistency (“my predecessor was not always linear in his actions”) and his parties. He put forward his own manifesto which had already been dubbed “l’agenda Monti” which he put on line almost immediately. It is a continuation of his government’s programme of fiscal rigour combined with some liberalisation of the economy and growth measures. His declared aims are the support of the Italian and European economies; his less declared aims are the support of the Church and it seemed till then that he would maintain a papal detachment from the rough and tumble of real politics.

With his two hour performance, Monti dispelled any idea that anyone might have still had that he is not a political animal. Without any Alastair Campbell or other obvious spin-doctor hovering in the background, he has been expertly building up his attack forces.

Before the press conference, he gave a long interview to the founder of the centre-left paper La Repubblica, and doyen of Italian journalism, Eugenio Scalfari saying that he was going to move into politics but indirectly and with a hint of some sort of working alliance with the Democratic Party (PD) and Pierluigi Bersani. A couple of days before he had used his last outing as prime minister before resigning to meet with Sergio Marchionne, controversial FIAT CEO and at least some of the union leaders who have come to a deal with Marchionne.

In the press conference itself, he never said that he would actually stand for office himself despite much pressing from the journalists. He does not have to stand for election to Parliament as he is a life senator but he could have said that he would stand as a centrist coalition leader.

He was, as my colleague, Pietro Garau said immediately after the press conference, playing the “europontifex maximus”
The man is far too conceited to go through the grind of a political campaign. In the end, he'll choose to play Europontifex Maximus, stand by the sidelines, offer occasional blessings onto the ones who seem to follow his "agenda" more respectfully, and wait on the sidelines to be begged to save Italy again. Which won't happen.

I wish that was true but since then he has moved a lot closer to the actual playing field.

On Christmas night (at 23.31), he posted his first tweet
Together we’ve saved Italy. Now we must renew politics; no use complaining, get involved. Let’s ‘ascend’ into politics.
Here he was spinning again. There were no papers on Boxing Day but the web, radio and television buzzed for the whole day with all the centrist politicians clustering round Monti like flies round a honeypot.

Yesterday, the Vatican paper L’Osservatore Romano explicitly endorsed him. The Church in Italy has always made it clear which side they are on (the winning side normally) but it is rare for the Vatican as such to be explicit. Monti is the first European candidate for head of government, I think, to have the explicit support of other European leaders and the foreign country here in the middle of Rome.

The next step is technical and tactical and this is being taken today; the disparate elements of the potential Monti-led coalition have to decide how to present themselves. In the Senate the system forces them to stand as a coalition as the threshold is 8% for single parties which would mean no seats. The Chamber threshold is half that so there is still the temptation to stand alone. Either way, they have to act quickly as symbols have to be registered in a fortnight, by 11 January. And somewhere, somehow, they will have to find if not candidates for all 945 seats in Parliament, then at least a third. It is not easy to find 300 good men (and women) and true (and of proven honesty).

For their part, candidates and potential candidates across the country are weighing up the advantages of a job (as minister, undersecretary or just simple backbencher) compared to ideological purity. It is the age-old quandary of principles versus expediency. Some have already moved from the PD to Monti and others from the PdL. For the moment they are the people of principle – the vicars of Bray will come later no doubt when the media searchlights have found other targets.

This has been Monti’s campaign so far. Planned with care, making sure of the size, strength and reliability of his troops before deploying them and then only to well-chosen positions. But it is still a very dangerous game. He risks coming in third or even fourth leading a motley crowd of some very competent and decent people and others who are neither.

In contrast, Berlusconi has laid down a box barrage worthy of the battle of the Somme. He has appeared in one-to-one interviews every day except Christmas. In some of the RAI encounters he was actually questioned and in one, he threatened to walk out. On his own channels, he was naturally given a free run and one he was even caught telling the interview what questions to ask (“after the break, you should ask me…”). The message has been unflinching. “Monti is Merkel’s lapdog and I will lower taxes, especially the property tax. The spread or interest rate difference between Germany and Italy is a con-trick. Trust me.”

This is an interesting message as I have a text on my phone which reads “We abolish the property tax. They tax your house and your savings. Choose the road ahead”. It sounds familiar… but is dated 6 April 2006, just before the last but one elections. The only giveaway for the date is that the property tax is called ICI not IMU like today’s and the message exhorts me to vote for Forza Italia rather than the PdL.

So the battle lines for the moment are between a Monti marshalling his forces and an already fighting Berlusconi. Monti is prepared to get into bed with Bersani who is also willing but neither must seem too keen and above all, Bersani will have to manage the left of his party and his coalition partner Nichi Vendola’s SEL very, very carefully otherwise he will lose Vendola, the left, Monti and the elections.

Grillo and Berlusconi shout populist messages from left and right while the Northern League has to plan its national and Lombard campaigns at the same time.

But by now, if the Europontifex monicker is to stick, Monti will play a Julius II warrior pope rather than one above the fray.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Misplaced nationalism

This morning two young men arrived at Ciampino Airport, the only passengers on a special government flight. They were welcomed by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence, the Chief of General Staff of the Italian Navy and the President of the Region of Latium. They also had a welcome telephone call from Prime Minister Mario Monti. This afternoon, they were received by President Napolitano who gave a grandfatherly embrace.

They are Massimiliano Latorre e Salvatore Girone, marine NCOs who have been held in India for the last ten months, accused of killing two fishermen who they mistook for pirates trying to attack the tanker that Latorre and Girone were deployed on as guards. They have been granted a fortnight’s parole for Christmas before returning to Kerala to face trial.

There is nothing surprising that Italian diplomats did their best to secure the parole; one of government’s primary duties is to protect its nationals if they are under threat abroad and to look after the interests of nationals accused of crimes.

It is extremely surprising and disturbing that the two marines have been granted such high honour and recognition. No one denies that the fisherman were killed and that they were killed by the marines but exactly how is not clear.

The precise circumstances of the shooting have not been accepted by all parties but a lot of evidence has been gathered both by the Indian court and journalists and no doubt more will be presented as the trial proceeds.

So it is very inappropriate to treat the two men as returning heroes and does not help either Italo-Indian relations or the fight against piracy in the Arabian Sea.

Italy has experience of foreign soldiers accidentally killing Italians. There have been two incidents in the recent past in which Italians have been killed by US military personnel. In the first, in 1998, a Marine plane cut a skilift cable killing 20 people. In the other, an Italian secret service officer, Nicola Calipari was killed at a Baghdad road block by a National Guardsman, Mario Lozano. In the first case, the pilots were tried by an American court martial because of the Status of Forces Agreement between the US and Italy. They were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter. In the second, an internal US Army investigation cleared Lozano of any wrongdoing. Both episodes left Italians feeling that justice had not been done and in Italian terms, it had not.

But the Americans were never given a public welcome when they came home, not even from junior officers, let alone the Secretaries of State, Defence and the President. If they had, most Italians would have been extremely indignant as are many Indians commenting on the story.

As well as the welcome from the authorities, (including the outgoing Latium regional president, Renata Polverini electioneering already for the February elections), MP Ignazio La Russa has offered to have them stand as candidates in his brand new right wing movement which has just split from Berlusconi’s PdL and is in need of publicity.

Months ago, the two marines were used as pawns in Indian election games, now they have become part of the Italian game. Italian and European diplomacy can do better than return to out-dated nationalistic stereotypes.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now two weeks after the 24-25 Feb elections. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg

People to Watch - Mario Monti

The ever sage Lord Palmerston reckoned that “The function of government is to calm, rather than to excite agitation”. That rather sums up Mario Monti’s approach. In his first year in government, he fulfilled the objective very effectively only to excite a great deal of agitation over his personal role in the future as his term in government came to an end. Next year there will certainly be much excitement around Monti before he resumes his more normal calming role.

His declared aim over the last year was to introduce reforms in the Italian economy which would give the country security and growth. To continue that aim, there are three possible jobs open to him in 2013; to become President of the Republic, Prime Minister or Minister (probably of the Economy). He has varying degrees of control on which one he actually takes up. Whichever one were to come his way, he would continue to exercise a crucial influence in Italy and an important one in Europe.

The least influential position is the presidency which should return to its largely symbolic function assuming there is a responsible government expressed by the people and parliament. But given the uncertainties in Italy, a President Monti might be called on to take real decisions rather than just cut ribbons.

Continuing as prime minister would obviously give him the greatest possibility of carrying on his work as an economic reformer. But it would require either a hung parliament or a new and different Monti, a politician who would have to come to terms with the parties and interests that support him, possibly a coalition son or grandson of the historic compromise. In either case, he would have to face non-strictly national economic issues from justice to the media to prisons and immigrants’ citizenship.

Finally, he might become economics minister in a centre-left government where there would be an uneasy tension between him and a prime minister Bersani. They would not always see eye to eye but could produce some interesting and positive synergies leaving Bersani to deal with unhappy party followers. Monti would continue his role as a secure link to the European institutions.

It is the first time that other European leaders have in practice endorsed another country’s potential leader. It should not surprise us given the interconnection of so many strands of government and above all, the shared currency. The cries of shock and horror over injured sovereignty are disingenuous.

It makes a change to see a former EU commissioner making good in his own country. The normal path to Brussels is as a consolation prize for not making it at home.

The endorsement itself is hardly surprising as Monti was part of the Brussels establishment for years and has represented European institutional values before and after his time as commissioner. Over the last year he used all his skills as an economist and as a politician to bring the presidency back to a much more traditional position.

The alternatives are to become the leader of a new, enlarged and revived neo-Christian Democrat party, coming onto the stage as just one of the many party leaders.

This was published on 19 Dec. in the ISPI series "People to watch in 2013"

Friday, December 21, 2012

Italian Elections Conference - Call for Papers

Italian Elections 2013 – Conference at the American University of Rome 8-9 March 2013

The American University of Rome’s Department of International Relations will be holding its usual Italian Elections Conference. This year our conference will take place on Friday and Saturday 8th and 9th March 2013 after the probable elections on 24-25 February. As in previous years, there will be a mix of scholars, commentators and observers, journalists and active politicians.

The keynote speaker will be Paul Ginsborg of the University of Florence.

Papers are invited which address the issues over which the elections were fought and which led up to them; the personalities who fought the elections; the results and prospects for the future; institutional issues like the role of the President and courts; technical issues like the electoral system and possible reform; the influence of European institutions and issues; the influence of meso-level government on national government (it is very likely that regional elections in Latium, Lombardy and Molise will be held on the same day as the national elections. Rome city elections will be held in the Spring), influence of the Church.

Non-academic submissions from professionals and experts working in and on Italian politics are also welcome.

Working languages: English and Italian.

Deadline for submissions: 1 Feb. 2013

Reply to

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dreams & Nightmares

Politics is about power and policy, the two motivations for anyone to get involved. You go into politics because there are issues you want to push whoever is pushing them or because you just like the taste and trappings of power, whatever the issues. There are few politicians who are wholly one or the other but most veer one way and from what we have seen so far, Mario Monti is a man of policy and principle.

He is a Catholic and is moderately neo-liberal economically and progressive socially. He was appointed to push through economic reform and that is his agenda. Though no doubt he is flattered by all the compliments and prodding from the European Popular Party leaders and even from the Socialist François Hollande and a 45% approval rating from Italians, who all think he is doing a good job, that alone is not enough to make him want to stand for office and possibly make a fool of himself.

If this is the case, he has to choose how best to pursue his policies. We can question those policies but it is difficult to question his motives for pursuing them. He has said repeatedly that he can walk away from the prime ministership and I think he means it.
He has various possible strategies. Dreams and nightmares.

He could go explicitly with his nearest ideological bedfellows – Pierferdinando Casini, Luca di Montezemolo and maybe Gianfranco Fini? Since he doesn’t have to be elected, it would mean lending his name to either a special list, “Lista per Monti” or suchlike or explicitly supporting the UDC. At the moment they are polling less than 10% so Monti would be reduced to being part of a minority party. That would be a pretty dull dream unless he was able to move unhappy centre right voters from Berlusconi and the rapidly disintegrating PdL into something looking like a neo-Christian Democratic party. The buzz at the moment is that he is preparing his list but no one has explained how he might find candidates for the 945 posts in Parliament to be filled (or even a fraction of them) in a month. Berlusconi managed in 1994 by putting in his employees; Di Pietro, the anti-corruption magistrate found his own party full of buyable turncoats expert in expenses scams. It is difficult to find a cabinet of unsullied public figures let alone a whole parliament. A Monti list would risk looking like a lifeboat for parliamentarians on sinking ships (Corriere della Sera’s Ferruccio De Bortoli has already compared the centre right to the wreck of the Medusa).

Or he could move to more distant relations. Bersani has made it clear from the beginning of Monti’s premiership that he would be happy to continue working with him. With his newly won legitimacy from the primaries, Bersani could probably bring the left of the PD with him and certainly have the centrist API within the coalition (API’s Bruno Tabacci stood in the centre-left primaries) but would have serious difficulty with Nichi Vendola and Monti would not want to work with him. This could also bring Casini and the UDC into something similar to the present government after Berlusconi’s departure and with a working majority. That would be closer to dream (ticket).

The programme would include (and emphasise) growth and spending and greater social equity, something that both Monti and Bersani have already promised. They would continue austerity and convince doubters, motivated by fear rather than any wonderful prospects.

The nightmare is that he does decide to lead Berlusconi’s proposed rassemblement (Berlusconi uses the French because any Italian term suggests a “heap”) of moderati (difficult to see what is moderate in Berlusconi, but that is part of Italian Newspeak). This would win the elections which after three months would fall apart because they cannot decide on what action to take. The spread tops 500 points and America’s fiscal cliff looks like a soft option. Monti’s ideas and his personal prestige would be blown to shreds and the recession would go on for another two or three years.

Then I wake up… and tell myself that Monti has already said explicitly (to the Catholic paper L’Avvenire) that he is not the continuation of the PdL, that Berlusconi and Alfano have insulted not only him but have rubbished his policies.

Monti’s choice lays bare the left-right divide in Italy and shows it to be much more a question of which gang you belong to rather than serious policy differences – there are indeed very serious policy cleavages but they cut across the existing parties rather than divide them.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now more likely to be almost a month after the probable 17 Feb elections. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Monti and Berlusconi

This was a question that came in today, similar to many others:

Do you think that Mario Monti might run as a political candidate? If yes, how and with whom? Could a party headed by Monti have a chance of winning more votes than Bersani's coalition? Will Berlusconi be in a strong position to control events after the elections?

My students are taking their exams this week; this is one for me, in 250-300 wds…

Monti is a life senator so he has the luxury of knowing that whatever happens next year, he will be a member of the upper house – he just has to stay alive. But that’s not the real question. Is he going to stand as a candidate for prime minister… or as a possible minister?

My guess is that he is not going to go into party politics in any explicit way, supporting this or that list or this or that party and leader. He seems to be a man of principle rather than one seduced by the sirens of power; if that is true, he is pursuing his economic agenda and will continue to do so whoever wins the elections. He’ll do this whoever is prime minister and he will be that much stronger if he does not support anyone explicitly but he will try and condition the parties and leaders who are seeking election.

His natural partners are the Catholic centre – Casini and the UDC with possible friends but if he joins them explicitly, then he would become a supporter of a group which is polling around 10%, the fourth biggest party after Bersani’s PD (at c. 35%), and the populist extremes of Berlusconi and Grillo (anywhere between 15 and 20% each). Much better to stay above the fray (the Vatican stays out of the UN so it does not have to vote and is all the more influential for that) and condition the whole campaign as he has done very ably since he told the world he would resign on Saturday.

As for Berlusconi, we have two jokers in the political pack – him and Grillo and both are showing signs of losing control. B has lost the support of most of his followers, on the right, ex-Alleanza Nazionale, from the Northern League and also from a good portion of the centrist ex-Forza Italia and even his own Popolo della Libertà and this evening he was again ranting against the judiciary as a “cancer of democracy”, a Bersani in thrall to a left-wing Vendola and the "communist" trade union. On the other side, Grillo has told anyone who questions his democratic credentials to get out of the movement (on the lines of “I’ll hit anyone who calls me violent”).

Still, both of them at the moment would win enough seats to condition (not control) the new government. And as anti-European populists, it would be interesting to see Berlusconi and Grillo in bed together – it might even happen!

If Berlusconi did have 100 deputies he could certainly influence the government enough to look after his own intersts but he wouldn’t be able to dictate the agenda.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now more likely to be almost a month after the probable 17 Feb elections. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg.

Twitter: @WalstonJames

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Silviosaur or Sunset Boulevard on Tiber

A tactless remark from a cabinet minister was the cue for Silvio Berlusconi to storm back onto center-stage. The consequences for Italy and for the rest of Europe are likely to be dire.

After months of dithering and keeping his supporters on tenterhooks Berlusconi finally decided to once again throw his hat in the ring and run for prime minister or at least “return to the center of politics” as the People of Freedom (PdL) secretary said. A few hours earlier, Corrado Passera the suave and experienced Minister for Economic Development had said that “A return to the past would not be good for Italy”. The remark was an explicit reference to Berlusconi’s PdL led government which stepped down in November last year. The immediate reaction was a salvo of criticism from PdL leaders followed by Berlusconi’s promise to come back.

On Friday, the PdL abstained from a vote of confidence on the budget bill and today, Angelino Alfano the party secretary, said that the Monti government was over. Berlusconi in practice brought the government down over a huff and a caprice.
A couple of weeks ago he had promised that he would “pull a dinosaur out of the hat”; the implication was that he was the dinosaur and so it is.

The given reason was predictable; Monti’s economic policies, according to Berlusconi, are not working and he has to return in order to save Italy… again.
Behind the rhetoric, there are myriad real reasons, mostly personal, as ever with Berlusconi, but some are party political.

The first is Sunset Boulevard on the Tiber. Berlusconi is the aging star who refuses to accept that he is past it and still craves adulation and the attention of fawning fans and the media. He is 76 and despite (and sometimes because of) the very visible pancake makeup, he looks his age and more. This “I know my people” plan is a dangerous ploy as he also knows that he risks an electoral disaster and before that bitter criticism from his own former party faithful; that is why he has waited so long to declare his hand.

Then there are much more concrete reasons outside the realm of psychopolitics. Cabinet was discussing a decree law which if passed would prevent anyone convicted of crimes which carry a two year sentence or more from running for office. As it stands, it only applies to those convicted at all three of Italy’s levels of judgment. It would only affect a couple of parliamentarians though rather more at lower levels of government. Berlusconi himself has never been convicted at the highest level but his close friend and business associate, Senator Marcello Dell’Utri, who was convicted of mafia association by the Court of Appeal but was let off on a technicality by the Supreme Court, was convicted at all three levels for false accounting with a two year three month sentence but even he would still be able to stand as there is a date stamp in the law and his conviction is past its best by.

There was talk that before the decree law is passed, it might be modified to include first or second level convictions in which case Berlusconi would be in trouble personally. Even as it stands, the draft law says that anyone convicted while in office will have to stand down. Berlusconi is expecting judgment on the Ruby case in February in which he is accused of using under age prostitution and abuse of power. That would only be the court at first instance but he felts the noose tightening.

He and Alfano have made it clear that another reason for abandoning the government is the lack of progress on the reform of justice. Berlusconi and Alfano when he was minister of justice did nothing to answer the most pressing issue facing Italian justice: the years it takes to reach a definitive sentence. This is not only a problem of equity and justice but a serious discouragment to investment; no one is going to invest when they know the courts do not decide civil cases.

Berlusconi, in contrast, is only concerned that judges and magistrates should bear personal civil liability for their actions independent of malice or negligence. So in his world, if a prosecution fails, the prosecutor should be personally liable for damages to the accused. It is a measure which smells of vendetta as well as a way to discourage any prosecutor from proceeding, not just the over-zealous.

His other hobbyhorse is to limit telephone taps. Wire taps, both leaked and regularly used in court proceedings have been very damaging for his reputation and others’ but they have been shown to be the most effective and cheapest way of obtaining evidence.

For his party as well as himself, Berlusconi would like elections to be earlier rather than later. Whatever happens, there were going to be general elections by April next year but after bringing the government down and Monti resigning, they will take place in February (either 7th or 24). And since the region of Latium will vote in early February and Lombardy probably in March, Berlusconi argues that millions of euros would be saved by having a single (or two) election days rather than three. It sounds logical enough but there are election tactics not far below.

The present electoral system allows the party to decide who is elected – for the PdL, the “fixed party list” is fixed by Berlusconi but if parliament changes the law as they say they want to, it would be the voters who would probably choose. So better to have elections sooner rather than later and without changing the electoral system.

The center-right is on a downward slope at the moment; they lost the regional elections in Sicily in October and polls give the PdL anywhere between 10 and 20%, a disaster compared to their 37% in 2008. If, as is likely they lose the Latium elections and then the Lombardy ones, the trend will continue, they fear. Worse, the backbiting and divisions would have torn what is left of the party apart.

Until Berlusconi said he was coming back, secretary Alfano was banking on primary elections to give himself some legitimacy but after the success of the center-left Democratic Party’s (PD) primaries, the PdL would have match the PD’s turnout which they cannot do. So primaries would actually have worsened the center-right’s position. Hence the need for snap elections brought about by bringing the government down.

Finally, Berlusconi wants to ride the Grillo tiger. Beppe Grillo is the Genoese comic who has launched his Five Star Movement (M5S) in a national force which pollster reckon is the second biggest party in the country. It is mostly left wing but there is a strong populist element against traditional parties and politics. Berlusconi hopes to tap into this discontent and regain some of the alienated centre-right voters. About half the electorate is either undecided or says they will not vote. They do not like Monti’s austerity measures and the old parties. If Berlusconi can mobilise even a small proportion of them, he will increase his share enormously. Berlusconi is also tapping into Grillo’s anti-Merkel and anti-Europe vein.

The consquences of Berlusconi’s threatened return were immediate. The spread between German and Italian government bonds which had dipped below 300 for the first time since early last year immediately jumped to the mid 300s, a tangible demonstration that Berlusconi’s showing declared reason of “saving the Italian economy” was nonsense.
Italy is liable to once again be seen as the risky man of Europe as well as being sick and all the gains in reputation and pains in austerity will go by the board.

Many feared that Berlusconi would pull a Silviosaur out of the hat but hoped that he wouldn’t, for the good of Italy and of Europe but he has and Italy is once again thrown into the storm.

Unless the old triumvirate of President Napolitano, the European Union and the markets can persuade Berlusconi to step back (unlikely), the elections will probably be in February and will certainly be coloured by economic uncertainty and bitterly divisive internal politics.

An edited version of this appeared in Foreign Policy.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 originally a month before the likely date of the elections, now more likely to be a month afterwards. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Monti’s Move

On the Italian chessboard a year of positioning play is moving rapidly towards a new phase.

On Thursday, Berlusconi said that he was going to stand again and his party secretary Angelino Alfano said that they would withdraw PdL support from the government… but responsibly, after passing the budget which is before Parliament. Berlusconi reckoned that way he would be able to condition the timing of elections and the rhythm of the campaign. It would be him who decided when to pull the plug and use the moment most likely to give him a boost. Check.

Like anything political, Italy is not a simple chessboard with only two players; Berlusconi’s move stymied Monti certainly but also silenced his own internal opposition whose divisions were the centre-left’s best weapon and so put the PD leader, Pierluigi Bersani in the shade. Bersani has just won the centre-left coalition primaries and the PD is riding high in the polls at 38%. His moment of glory was short-lived, though. Now he has to deal with an antagonist who has already gone back to his traditional anti-communism using Nichi Vendola as a frightener to unite the alienated right wing voters. And finally Berlusconi was able to snub President Napolitano and the European institutions who removed him 13 months ago.

Then yesterday Monti made his own move. He resigned as prime minister with effect from the budget approval. Now it is Berlusconi who is checked. Monti has taken the initiative and it is him that can say when and what will happen. He has also said implicitly that he no longer feels barred from going directly into politics (rather than waiting politely on the sidelines waiting to be called). Presumably his Sunday is one of reflection on exactly how and with whom he is going to go into politics.
We’re still a long way from the endgame but with the election date likely to be at the end of February, we’re moving towards it.

In the meantime, the country will face a storm from the markets and strong implicit criticism from the European institutions. Already most European and American papers have laid into Berlusconi as a self-centred danger to his country.

The dinosaur he promised to pull out of the hat is himself, a Silviosaur but the new-old species does not have the resources or the glamour of the 1994 Mk 1 model so is not going to become prime minister. But he does have enough appeal and resources to make the life of whoever wins the elections very difficult and he will try to drive wedges through whatever centrist-centre-left coalition Bersani is able to come up with.

Berlusconi-Nero fiddling as Rome burns is an old image for cartoonists but is still a valid one but Monti’s counter move shows that the game will be a long and tough one; fascinating for chess buffs but of life and death importance for Italians and those who live in Italy. It’s not just a game.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Election Watch 6. Berlusconi unleashed and Sicilian elections.

At first glance, Berlusconi’s four year sentence for tax fraud last week and the results for the Sicilian elections on Monday should have cleared the air and changed the broader picture. Instead, they change remarkably little. As before, confusion reigns.

Since last Friday, Berlusconi has huffed and puffed in different directions but he will not blow the Monti house down. His performance at a long press conference the day after was part rage and part calculated positioning in quasi opposition. He attacked the courts and threatened to withdraw his party’s support for the Monti government and go for early elections. Much of the bluster and posturing is part of the infra-PdL battles rather than an attack on Monti or the other parties. Monti himself was icy in his response “We do not see the threat to withdraw support as a threat” . It was a challenge to Berlusconi and anyone else who might be thinking of bringing down the government; “do it”, the subtext went, “but take the consequences”. Berlusconi changed tack a couple of days later and renewed his support for Monti.

He is also manoevering to keep a position of influence in his Popolo della Libertà (PdL) or whatever new name or new party/parties appear before the elections.

Two days before the Milan verdict, Berlusconi declared publically that he was going to “step aside” and allow “younger people” to take over the reins of the party and power. This was a way to jump in a direction that he could control rather than being pushed by the verdict, by very negative opinion polls and by the internal divisions of the PdL. Not only is the right, the ex-Alleanza Nazionale people, showing impatience and saying that the Berlusconi era is over, many of his own supporters who came from Forza Italia think he is the kiss of death. There were even signs of disagreement between him and his designated successor, PdL secretary, Angelino Alfano, a man caricatured as being Berlusconi’s puppet. Those differences have been papered over but the party is still riven with discord.

For the moment Berlusconi has retired to Malindi in Kenya with his friend and fellow billionaire, Flavio Briatore for a week’s rest and recreation.

Of course Berlusconi still has immense power and resources. He has his wealth which he can deploy in open and hidden ways and he still has his own media and some residual influence with the RAI. He is on the warpath because he has been seriously wounded by the Milan verdict and is worried that his other criminal cases will come to verdict soon and negatively. So we can expect to see quite a lot of Silvio Berlusconi between now and the elections. But that is not the same as him controlling the campaign, even on the centre-right.

The Sicilian elections added even less light to the overall picture. Even though the centre-left coalition won the elections and will have to deal with Sicily’s massive debt, they can hardly take the result as an augury of victory in April. They do not have a majority in the assembly so there will be serious horsetrading at every division. The biggest single party was Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) whose candidate took 18.2% (but the party only won 14.9%; the system allows split ticket voting).

The most significant figure to come out of Sicily was the record low turnout; 47% compared to over 60 last time. Everyone lost some votes reflecting the general alienation from political parties but the centre-right lost much more heavily.

The PdL has disasterous showing in the Sicilian elections (12.9% in a region where they won every constituency in 2001), another reason for Berlusconi to “step aside” before being pushed.

This means that the centre-right needs a leader. Alfano has declared that there will be primaries to be held on 16 December. Like the centre-left until very recently, they have no rules for them and still have not decided if they will be looking for a leader of a centre-right coalition or of a single party and if so, which. There are mutterings that Berlusconi will try and refound Forza Italia, unlikely and very destructive for the centre-right.

It is not only the PdL which is imploding. On Sunday, Milena Gabanelli’s hard hitting investigative program, Report, lined up Antonio Di Pietro and his Italia dei Valori party in her sights. She uncovered much sleaze and bad judgement though little which might be illegal, small beer for the other parties but devastating for a man and a party which has made its reputation on its honesty and legality. He and his party are desperately trying to work out how to save the party or whether to support Grillo.

In comparison, the Democratic Party’s primaries are going well for the moment, giving them good coverage without destructive internal bickerings. One of the potential candidates, the left wing Nichi Vendola has just been fully acquitted of corruption and has said that he will now campaign in top gear. They are due to vote on 25 November.

It is not only national leaders that are needed. We will have another dress rehearsal for the general election when Latium and Lombardy elections go to the polls, probably early in February. Along with two of the biggest regions tiny Molise will also be voting as the courts finally declared the 2011 elections null. Between now and then, there will be frenetic activity in the parties trying to decide who will be the candidates for president. The only certain one so far is Nicola Zingaretti, much respected president of the province of Rome who was due to stand for mayor in the scheduled city elections in May. Now he’s moved to the region.

These are busy times with no easy predictions.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 a month before the likely date of the elections. The keynote speech will be given by Paul Ginsborg.

Previous Election Watch Blogs
1. 15 July Nine months to Elections.
2. 28 July Summer
3. 9 Sept. Monti succeeds Monti? The temperature rises. Berlusconi again, “The White Thing” and left in disarray.
4. 30 Sept. All aboard the Monti bandwagon.
5. 13 Oct. Disintegrating Regions

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The American elections seen from Italy.

On the foreign policy front, Italians should be very concerned about the results of the American elections. Syria is in the middle of a civil war and Lebanon is once again on the brink of one. The Mediterranean is a small place and what happens in one corner affect the others, especially when there are Italian peacekeepers in the region. Obama’s policies are cautious and interlocutory while despite a moderate Mitt in the last debate, Romney says he wants the US to be respected once again. A change in American policy will change the reality for Italy. A Romney victory would increase Italian security risks.

In the same neck of the woods, Iran is an important trading partner for Italy. Obama is seeking some sort of negotiation while Romney seems in thrall to Bibi Netanyahu. A military confrontation between Israel and/or the US would have serious economic repercussions for Italy quite apart from the major regional consequences.

Much closer to home is Libya where Italian interests are even more direct; before the Libyan crisis, Italy depended on Libya for 23% of its oil and 10% of its gas. An aggressive American Libyan policy would have greater effects on Italy. A Bush-style invasion would be disastrous while negotiations, reconciliation and an attempt to build a stable and democratic Libya (or at least one or the other) is the Italian aim and that of Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador killed in Benghazi. Again, a Romney victory would have direct and immediate consequences for Italy.

But apart from the few specialist broadcasts and columns, the Italian media, and as far as I can judge, the Italian public are not thinking about even the direct consequences of the American elections for Italy.

The Washington Post put it very succinctly – most Europeans have still not realised that there is a serious competition in the US and that Obama might not win. The German Marshall Fund poll showed that Italians still massively approve of Obama’s handling of foreign affairs, even though the approval is down from 91% in 2008 to 74% in 2012. In practice, in Italy, there is no question. Most of the country, right and left, think that “Obama is the best for us and Obama is going to win”. There has been precious little debate on what the two candidates have actually said and although Obama’s policies are certainly better for Italy than the probable Romney ones, this is a given rather than an argued point.

Not even the Italian far right has any sympathy with the Tea Party (they actually want more state intervention than the left, an anathema for the American right) and Obama is sufficiently centrist to satisfy most of the Italian centre and centre-right.

Even after the first terrible performance by Obama, the idea that he might lose hardly touched most Italians’ consciousness. “We know Obama, we don’t like him quite as much as we did four years ago, but he’ll do”.

The immediate economic problems facing Italians trump any concern about the future US leader. To the east, Greece sinks into chaos and to the west, Spain is on the verge of seeking help from Brussels. Italy might be next. With these problems at the door, the American debates over job creation over there, seem very detached from the real, Italian, world. After the risk of losing one’s job or having to pay more on a lower budget, the next most important item are the Italian elections and the crises engulfing the whole political system.

Italy will have a general election almost certainly in April. The Sicilians voted over the weekend for their regional assembly after near bankruptcy brought down the previous government and two of the other biggest regions, Lombardy and Latium will vote very soon after major scandals forced early elections. Some of the other regions are wobbling. There is a whiff of the US in the centre-left Democratic Party’s “primaries” (and now the centre-right too) but not many of the party activists really know how the Americans conduct their own primaries, but it sounds democratic.

It is curious that Le Monde has an “Elections américaines” link on their banner while no Italian paper has anything in such a prominent position; La Stampa has a link halfway down the home page. For the Italian media, it is not that interesting – a competition which has lots of colour and noise, interesting and fun to watch but not really relevant.

If Obama wins again, it will be business as usual. If Romney were to win, it would take some time for the real consequences to sink in.

A version of this was published in openDemocracy 29 October A spectacle, not an election: how Italians see the race

The American University of Rome will be holding an election night vigil starting at 22.00 and going on for as long as it take. We will also be holding a debate on the results soon after 7 November. For details of both events check our website or write to

Monday, October 15, 2012


Almost four years ago, I went to the Terrorhaza, the House of Terror in Budapest. This is a museum which describes the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross and Communist regimes. It is housed in the building which was used by both as a prison, interrogation and torture centre for dissidents. There are the real gallows and films of gulags, the massacre of Jews in Budapest along with many other horrors. It is not a subtle exhibition and does not pull its punches about the human and humanitarian costs. The images both moving and still are graphic, the sounds which accompany them equally so and loud; many of the objects are gruesome. It leaves the visitor in no doubt about the regimes.

So it was surprising to find the following two entries in two separate visitors’ books which gave us an idea of what at least some people were thinking at Thanksgiving in 2008:

"Thank you for this fantastic exhibition. With the new Obama nation in the United States, soon [underlined] we will be a Communist nation. Please try and help us.
A New Yorker"
dated 25/11/08

same date but in the other book and in a different handwriting

"It is shocking and scary how similar the earlier days of the Nazis and the Communists look to the promises and plans of the Obama administration in the United States. All Americans should learn about what really happens under Communism and Socialism

The two people who took the trouble to write those entries were people who had travelled to Hungary, so do not fit the cliché of the isolationist, stay-at-home American. One was from New York, again, not the stereotype of the the rural redneck.

As we again approach the US presidential elections, I wonder how the authors of the two diatribes are feeling now. Have they realised that Obama was never a radical (even before he was elected) and the US has not been swept into a murderous Nazi or Communist gulag society? Or do they fear that in his second term, the “real” Obama will appear, fangs and all? Given the vitriol in those outburts, I suspect they still think that Obama is the personification of “European” political vice. Something on the line that if you start with a national health service, the SS and the KGB are not far behind.

There have been other American presidents who have evoked strong negative passions. Indeed, Obama’s predecessor made many Americans foam at the mouth at the mention of his name. But even if some hated George W for what he was, most found his actions dangerous and contemptible and once they stopped foaming, they would be able to articulate the reasons for their antipathy.

Among people like the Terrorhaza visitors, it is likely that Obama is feared for what he is not for what he does. He is international in his backround, he is an intellectual and very much part of a coastal elite, in many ways more waspish than real WASPs. And above all, as Silvio Berlusconi so subtly put it, he is “suntanned”. Berlusconi was too stolid to realise he was being offensive; the Tea Partiers and birthers are not that crass so they use other terms. They suggest that he was not born in Hawai; some of them would like to repeal the 14th Amendment which gives citizenship and full political rights to anyone born in the US, an irony in Italy where there are attempts to actually give citizenship to children born here. They claim that he is Muslim because of his name and because of his childhood spent in Indonesia, he cannot be a “real patriotic American”. All these red herrings should have been buried long ago and Obama should be judged on his presidential successes and failures and for most Americans, this will be the case.

But there is a hard core that still cannot accept the idea of a black president. And since overt racism is no longer acceptable in public in the US, they dress up their prejudice in distracting clothing. “Socialism” is a good starter; most Americans don’t have a very clear idea of what it means (ditto most Europeans by now, but that is irrelevant for the moment) but it is highly negative whatever it is. “Elitist” and “unpatriotic” are hardly less damning epithets.

No doubt there are some who genuinely dislike Obama for those reasons but Ta-Nehisi Coates in the recent Atlantic article “Fear of a Black President” quotes many scientific articles written over the last four years which show the electoral weight of racism against Obama in both numerical and geographical terms. He goes over the incidents when Obama either said nothing about racial issues or said something as in the case of the killing of black teenager, Trayvon Martin or the arrest of Harvard professor, Randall Kennedy and then had to face a backlash and accusations of “black rage”. It is a long, thoughtful and well-argued (and angry) article; he concludes “Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.”

The not-so-hidden racism does not only come from the white right. Last summer, Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary “2016” was released arguing that Obama is motivated by an anti-British, anti-colonial ideology learnt from his Kenyan father. As a consequence, argues D’Souza, Obama is anti-American and only a little more politely says the same as the Terrorhaza jeremiads.

The contrasts in US society are striking. For all the tough talk in the presidential and vice presidential debates, they are extremely civil affairs but the undercurrents hide the dark divisions in the country which are anything but civil.

It is curious (and I hope encouraging) that of the four candidates, two are Catholic, one is Mormon and only one is Protestant (and he is not Episcopalian) but religion is not an issue in this election (though no doubt it will be when there is an openly atheist candidate). When the US has its first woman or Jewish president there will no doubt be similar questions. But partly because of the time passed and partly because of the depth of that bitter heritage of racism, the debate will not be as acute and will not provoke the reactions I saw in Hungary four years ago. In the meantime, the playing field is still not level.

On Wednesday and next week, we will be publicly re-screening the Presidential Debates at AUR at more convenient European times and will be having an all-night Open House on 6 November to watch the results come and discuss them.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

“Nanny knows best” – “Il Duce ha sempre ragione”. A question from England

Stereotypes die hard; and yet they often have more than a grain of truth.

An English journalist called the other day to seek support for a piece he was writing, arguing that Italians still had a yearning for a strong man in power and that Monti was just a modern day Mussolini, an unelected leader, this time without the black shirt and the extended jaw.

Thirty five years after Basil Fawlty told us “don’t mention the war” and then goosestepped past his German guest with his right arm raised, there is still an English temptation to see wannabe fascists in every trattoria. There are even some on the Italian right who have the nerve to make the connection.

But Mario Monti does not bring on that temptation.

In both style and substance, he as at the antipodes of anything fascist. Mussolini and his emulators were full of bombast and empty, albeit aggressive rhetoric. Fascism was for show; the fancy uniforms, the rallies, the plywood façades built by Cinecittà set builders to impress Hitler on his state visit. Its slogans set the tone: “Il Duce ha sempre ragione” (Mussolini is always right) or the fundamental “Credere! Obbedire! Combattere!” (Believe! Obey! fight!). In substance, thankfully at least for the French, the British, the Greeks and the Yugoslavs, there was much less. Soldiers were sent to high Alps and the Russian winter with cardboard boots, munitions were substandard due to corruption and military planning flawed because men were promoted for fascist loyalty rather than military skills. Mussolini himself, far from being the firm decider, wavered at crucial moments.

In institutional terms, however malfunctioning, Italy today is profoundly democratic which it certainly was not in 1922 when Mussolini came to power. Even more important, Italy is part of the EU which acts as a brake on dictatorial trends.

So even if Monti did harbour Mussolini-like dreams, he would have difficulty putting them into practice. But in any case he doesn’t as we know from his time as prime minister and before. In style, the main criticism is that he too drab (or put politely, “sober”). In substance, he has limited aims, only partially achieved and has certainly not overstepped his mandate. He showed his respect for the rules when he was European Commissioner and his ability to play them in order to achieve his ends and he is doing the same now.

“Ah, but…” my journalist friend says, “the Italians like him and prefer an unelected strong man to weak and corrupt politicians”. It is true that opinion polls still give Monti high ratings despite his having made most Italians suffer, much higher than party leaders. But that is not fascism.

There actually is a consistent minority of Italians who still have an admiration for Mussolini and that number is probably growing as the living memory of fascism fades. There are dangers of a populist right in Italy as in other parts of Europe (but less precisely because of the fascist experience), but Monti is not part of it. Basil Fawlty can sleep easily in whatever retirement home he has moved to.

But… and there is a big but, there is indeed an accepted tendency in Italy to rely on outsiders to clean up local political messes. Institutionally, the Ministry of the Interior can send a senior functionary to take over a local administration (city or region) if the elected representatives are incapable of governing. If they cannot form a local government, this is done voluntarily; if, as in the case of Reggio Calabria last week, the council is shown to be under mafia control, it is done by order of the Minister. The term is commissariamento. The “commissioner” has a mandate limited in time and often in scope too. At the end of the mandate, the administration goes back to the politicians.

In business, a receiver can be sent in to clean up; in politics, it is rarer but in Italy, the practice has a long pedigree. In the middle ages, when local factions could not agree on how to run a town, they accepted an outsider of proven honesty (and who had no connections to local families) to run the place, a podestà straniero (“podestà” usually translated as “chief magistrate”, “straniero” is “outsider” rather than the more usually “foreign”). Monti has used the term to describe himself; he is an outsider in political terms and his mandate has a date stamp on it.

The ancient Roman Republic too, had an institution which gave supreme power to a single man in an emergency, the dictator whose mandate was for a year. Fabius Maximus (left), the Cunctator or delayer, was dictator when he defeated Hannibal. More than 2,000 years later, Garibaldi appointed himself dictator in Naples as the temporary ruler. It was only in the 20th century that the word took on its negative connotations.

So there is an Italian tendency to call in a grown-up to clean up the mess; it is closer to the very English “nanny knows best” rather than the peremptory “Mussolini is always right”. But a caricature of Monti as nanny (or perhaps in Italy, “la mamma”) does not make as good a headline as Monti in a black shirt.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Elections Watch 5. Disintegrating regions.

Every day brings new revelations about scandals in the cities and the regions. I have had to put the title in the plural; we have known about the Sicilian regional elections since the summer (they are due on 28 Oct.) and Rome elects a new mayor and council in the Spring, on schedule. The general election has to be in spring as well, on schedule probably 7-8 April. Last week, the Latium president, Renata Polverini resigned with one member of her council accused of embezzling €1.3m. At the moment, there is talk of elections on 16 Dec. but Polverini is trying to dig her heels in.

A couple of days ago, a member of the Lombardy regional government, Domenico Zambetti (left with Regional President, Roberto Formigoni), was arrested, accused of having paid the ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia very well established in the Milan, €200,000 for 4,000 votes. Twelve other members of the 80 member council are under investigation . The majority are centre-right, PdL or Northern League but there is also Filippo Penati, a close associate of PD leader, Pierluigi Bersani. The president of the region, Roberto Formigoni has stubbornly refused to even countenance resignation despite ample evidence of his close links with Pierangelo Daccò a fixer who has just been given a 10 year sentence for fraud and other crimes. Instead, he promised a regional government reshuffle and scheduled elections in 2015. Today, the his Northern League allies have threatened to withdraw their support and said that the government should resign next year and go to the polls at the same time as the general election.

In Latium, an IdV (Di Pietro’s Italy of Values) counsellor and member of the former regional government has been accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of euro. The city council in Reggio Calabria has been suspended by the Ministry of the Interior because of ndrangheta infliltration.

The only difference with the 1992 scandals is that this time most of them are local but the vision of structures crumbling is the same.

The national politicians meanwhile carry on almost as if nothing was happening. An anti-corruption bill gathers dust in Parliament and it is not even the Draconian measure that the parliamentarians’ critics would prefer. They continue bickering over the new electoral system. At the moment the bill would still have a portion filled by a fixed party list (chosen, therefore, by party leaders like today) and there is no agreement about a threshold to exclude the smaller parties. It includes preference votes by which voters can choose one or more candidates from a party list. This is genuinely democratic and encourages voter choice but it also encourages clientelistic practices – candidates distribute the pork in return for the preferences. Or failing that, they buy them from the ndrangheta. Whichever way they turn, they immediately get covered in sleaze.

The party system is reeling. Berlusconi continues to waver though he has said that he will take a step back “to preserve the unity of moderate Italy and save the country from the left”. He has stopped calling the PD “communist” but continues to present himself as the paladin of the “moderate” centre-right except that he only has a few diehard supporters left. The real right, heirs of National Alliance (AN) are ready to split off again while the real centre feel that Berlusconi would be the kiss of death. And he is clearly not convinced himself. He has been shuffling around yet another party, convinced that re-branding is the answer which it isn’t any more.

The centre-left have just agreed on the rules for their primaries even though they do not yet know what sort of electoral system will be in place for actual election. They will vote on 25 November to find a leader of the coalition; if no one wins a majority, the ballot will be on 2 December. Voters will have to register and candidates will have to gather 20,000 signatures in order to stand.

The irony of all these elections is that opinion polls continue to show that Italians have less and less confidence in the system and half still will not vote. So we risk having elections and no voters.

The other Italy appears on the streets demonstrating against job losses and in support of public schools. Monti and his government mediate and project optimism but time is getting short.

As in previous election years, the American University of Rome will be hosting a two day conference covering election issues, parties, policies and personalities, with analyses from scholars, journalists and politicians. This year it will be on 8-9 March 2013 a month before the likely date of the elections.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Primaries – Italian style

Yesterday, the Democratic Party (PD) was supposed to have unveiled the way that they will choose the leader of the centre-left coalition for the next elections due in spring. Instead, once again, they put off the final details, promising them in the coming week but the two main candidates did agree on a couple of fundamental points.

Party secretary and obvious frontrunner, Pierluigi Bersani and his main rival, the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi decided that there should be a register of voters for the primaries and in the event of no candidate winning an absolute majority, there would be a run-off.

The primary problem is that imported political plants do not grow in the same way as they did in native soil.

The Americans invented primaries long ago to choose candidates for most political offices but an institution which seems simple, straightforward and effective is actually a mystery even to most Americans apart from the most dedicated political wonks. For the rest of us, the word and the process only hit our radar every four years and only then for the choice of presidential candidates.

It is a process which has developed over more than a century to meet different needs in different places and times. It is not regulated by the federal government and on occasions, even state governments have little to do with them. There are not quite as many versions as there are states, but almost.

Most foreigners (and a good number of Americans) think that voters from a party decide which candidate they prefer and that the one that wins goes on to face the other candidate.

It’s not quite like that.

Some states don’t even have primaries – they caucus, which is a polite way of saying that a few interested people get into a huddle and reach some sort of consensus. There may be no procedural rules or they may be very flexible.

The states that do have primaries each organise them in very different ways. In some, only registered members of the party may vote (“closed”), in others anyone may vote (“open”) meaning that a registered Democrat can vote for the least likely to win Republican or vice versa or the one most agreeable to him. In others, registered independents or undeclared voters can vote in either Democratic or Republican primaries (“semi-open” or “semi-closed”). The weight of results is also highly variable; in some states, the winner takes all the state’s delegates, in others, the delegates match the proportion of votes.

[For a detailed account up to 1997, see James Davis’s U.S. Presidential Primaries and the Caucus-Convention System: A Sourcebook. My thanks to Marcella Morris, UMd, for pointing this out to me].

There are a few PD members who understand the dark arts of primaries but most just think of the results they hope for. But as with the much more serious question of the national electoral system, the first question to answer is “who do we want to win?” Or on the rare occasion that an electoral system is changed without ulterior motives, “what principle do we want to uphold?”

In the beginning, in Italy, Romano Prodi needed legitimation for his leadership; he had no party and because of that in 1998 was rudely shafted. Before leading a new coalition, he wanted support which came from the electorate and not the parties. The operation succeeded at least until one of those parties withdrew their support.

Walter Veltroni had the same reasons when he launched the Democratic Party in 2007; a popular vote would give him at least a façade of support or at best a real power base.

Primaries seemed a good way of raising party and personal profiles. The problem and big difference with the US is that it was never clear whether the primary was to chose the leader of a party or a coalition of parties. All the Italian electoral systems in practice demand coalitions so the primaries rapidly became mechanisms for choosing the coalition leader and the problems began when the “wrong” people (ie outside the nomenclature of the biggest party, the PD) starting winning the primaries for regional and city elections. The other big difference is that there is no party programme that conferences have debated and candidates have to stick to.

The PD leadership did not prepare the ground for next year’s elections; the scent of victory was so intoxicating that they did not realise that the old guard would have to justify its hold on political power and the privilege (not right) to lead the victorious coalition. That primary genie was out of the bottle and will not be put back.
The PD hoped to use the primaries as a way to mobilise potential voters and they are certainly doing this but they had not thought through who was supposed to win or rather how Bersani was supposed to win and by setting the rules now, they risk being accused of manipulation against his main rival, Matteo Renzi. Some of the party leaders have accused Renzi of being an upstart pipsqueak or, worse, being a friend of Berlusconi’s (who has expressed his appreciation of the young Florentine, a real kiss of death, reinforced by an article in the Berlusconi family Il Giornale by arch supporter, Giuliano Ferrara).

For a year now, Renzi has been saying that the oldies should be traded in (rottamare is more brutal – “scrapped” or the American “cash for clunkers” are both more direct but no one is offering the electorate financial incentives if they dump the old guard). There are other candidates and despite occasional whinges about lack of choice, there is a very real choice.

If the US is the model, then the complaints are misplaced. At the moment there are five candidates. Four men and one woman; three from the north, one from the centre and one from the south. Two are over 60, two over 50 and one under 40. Three are within the PD, one to the left and one to the right. Three are or have been regional presidents and one is a regional councillor. Two are Catholic, three are secular; one is gay. It’s actually a pretty good spread to choose from compared to say, this year’s US Republican candidates.

Nonetheless, instead of acting as a window for the party and a launching pad for a leader, the primaries still risk seriously dividing the centre-left.

Their greatest hope is that when the centre-right tries to choose a leader, it will be even more divisive.

Declared Candidates.

Pierluigi Bersani (PD, male, 1951, party secretary, MP, former minister, former pres. Emilia-Romagna, Emilia-Romagna), Matteo Renzi (PD, male, 1975, mayor of Florence, Tuscan), Nichi Vendola (SEL, male, 1958, president Apulia, Apulian), Bruno Tabacci (UDC (ex DC), male, 1946, MP, former pres. Lombardy, Lombard), Laura Puppato (PD, female, 1957, Veneto regional councillor, Veneta).

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Monti bis - a question from Greece.

I received this question from Irini Mitropoulou of To Vima, a Greek broadsheet:

"Do you think that he will stay on for a second term? Who would want him to stay, and who wouldn't? Is there any reliable political alternative? And what is the prevalent mood in the italian society? Are the italian people willing to make more sacrifices,«for the good of the country»?"

This was my answer:

Monti's strength is as a leader who is not directly linked with any political party or leader. He is manifestly a Catholic, a limited free-market liberal centrist but if he puts his name to any of the parties which match that definition, he loses his independence and that strength. Italians are fed up with politicians, not necessarily with policies. They are largely accepting Monti's painful medicine precisely because it is not coming from the traditional parties.

But Casini (UDC) and Fini (FLI) and Montezemolo (Italia futura) would like to have his name and prestige and are trying to bring him on board - hence the manoeuvres of the last few days. Berlusconi and Alfano would like to have him as an ally so as not to lose by too much but Monti has played hard to get with them and the others.

The only alternative, at the moment with the present polls is a a centre-left government led by Bersani and the PD (or whoever wins the PD primaries) with perhaps Monti as Economics minister after the elections.

But all predictions are conditioned by the lack of electoral law. The teams are lining up for the match but they don't know if they going to play football or rugby or basketball.

The anti-Monti elements are clear and declared: the present opposition, left (IdV and SEL) and right (Lega Nord) have said that don't like him or his policies. The PD and the PdL are much more equivocal - they want some of his policies and they still need him as a shield to do the dirty (and unpopular) work for them.

For their part, the Italian people are punch-drunk. They are not yet angry enough like a good proportion of the Greeks, to go out an protest but they don't have a plausible alternative. If there was a serious proposal, they probably would accept further sacrifices but no one has managed to convince them - and every scandal makes it less likely that they might be convinced. They know they don't like "politicians" and half of them say they will not vote.

Greece is already in the trough - Italy is still on the brink.

Published 7 October 2012 Μόντι: Βολικός αλλά ανήσυχος

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Election watch 4. All aboard the Monti bandwagon.

It should not have been a surprise to hear Mario Monti say publically that if asked and if necessary he would continue in government but that he was not going to stand for office.

From the moment he was appointed almost a year ago, there has been speculation about what he would do after the elections. At first, the presumption was that he would “go up the hill”, the Quirinale and take over from President Napolitano whose term ends in May next year but over the last six months there has been increasing speculation that he would continue as prime minister.

If he does stay on, he would not be the first politician to “sacrifice myself for the good of the country” only with Monti, one gets the feeling that he actually means it. Certainly he does not want to jump into the electoral fray and if he does continue, it will be on his own terms.

A second Monti government would be useful for many politicians and some of them are already taking advantage of Monti’s possible second term. The centre has always supported him as have Catholics across the spectrum; so Pierferdinando Casini was explicit last week saying that his centrist UDC would campaign for a “Monti bis” which he repeated again today along with Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the Chamber and leader of Futuro e Libertà. The head of the Italian episcopal conference, Mons. Mariano Crociata was more guarded but gave Monti his implicit support for “any solution to overcome the crisis”. The more secular centre is represented by Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the Ferrari boss. He set up a foundation Italia futura in 2009 which was presumed to be his springboard into politics but he has wavered ever since. Now he says that he will not go into politics himself but will support Monti. All together, the centre might just reach 10%; Casini and the others are hoping that with Monti as the future prime minister, they would do much better.

Angelino Alfano, the nominal leader of Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà, (PdL) said today that Monti should declare his candidacy but has made it clear that he and implicitly Berlusconi would prefer a Monti bis to a centre left victory. They seem to be preparing the way to tag along after Monti and maintain some say in both positions and policy for the next government. It is a rational strategy as all the opinion polls suggest that with or without Berlusconi, the PdL would come in a poor second. In any case, they are seriously divided, suffering from the Latium scandals and worried that other regional scandals will further soil the party’s sagging reputation. Like the centrists, they think that by hitching their wagon to a Monti bis, they can do better at the elections and above all after the elections.

Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) is in a much more difficult position. They are supporting Monti’s government today but are leading in the polls and hope to win the elections. To support Monti today would be to give up before the campaign begins. And Bersani has indeed expressed his admiration for Monti but laid his claim to at least trying to win the elections.

We are a step closer to the date; most likely 7-8 April (not a very difficult calculation given the end of the mandate, the Easter and Pesach holidays and then the 25 April and 1 May holidays). But we are no closer to an electoral system. There is a real risk that Italy will once again vote with the despised fixed party list system known as the porcellum or pig’s dinner. If that happens, turnout will plummet as voter confidence is at an all-time low and to have candidates chosen by the parties will reduce that confidence even further.

We already have Sicilian regional elections at the end of October and now the Interior Minister has said that Latium will vote within 90 days after last week’s dramatic resignation of the president, Renata Polverini. (And Rome will elect a new mayor in spring so we will have a surfeit of elections over the next six months).

One of the new Parliament’s first jobs will be to elect Napolitano’s successor, at the moment the favorite has to be Romano Prodi but obviously the result will depend on Parliament’s composition.

Much lower on the pecking order but much closer in time is the PD’s struggle to work out their own primary system to choose their own leader. Most likely Bersani but by no means certain. The 37 year old Florence mayor, Matteo Renzi, is close on his heels and there are other candidates

The Northern League is trying to re-invent itself after the Bossi family scandals. The new leader, Roberto Maroni has talked about a “renaissance” and “Forza Nord”, hoping to emulate the early Berlusconi success.

Meanwhile, with typical irony, Parliament is addressing a new anti-corruption law unconcerned that a good number of them might fall victim to a serious measure.

So much better to look for the possible winner and his bandwagon.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Vatican – the real issues beyond the butler.

The trial of Paolo Gabriele (left with Pope Benedict) began today. He was the Pope’s manservant who is accused of having stolen material from the Pope’s appartment much of which was then published in Gianluigi Nuzzi’s Sua Sanità. Le carte segrete (His Holiness. The Secret Papers) published in May. At worst, he risks four and a half years in gaol, a long way from being stunned and quartered publically by Mastro Titta, the papal executioner 200 years ago (the last public execution was in 1870 with the guillotine a month before Italian forces took Rome. The death penalty was formally removed in 1967 at the same time as Britain). It’s a good story because of the Vatican’s proverbial secrecy and intrigue and because of its ambiguity between its role as an international political and economic power and its claim to spiritual and ethical leadership. Mix that with the pedophile priest scandals (none in the Vatican itself so far but plenty of accusations of cover-ups) and not surprisingly, there is good copy for all.

But it strikes me that the fuss around the leaks and trial story misses the point. “The butler did it” was too tempting a headline to resist but the butler in question is only a very small part of a much more fascinating tale.

There are at least three different divisions within the Vatican. The first is an old one between conservatives and reformers. This is a front that has been around for as long as the Church itself but the present battle lines were fixed 50 years ago around the Second Vatican Council. The role of the faithful in deciding Church doctrine moved from John XXIII’s opening to dialogue to John Paul II’s strongly heirarchical vision. The issues are the ongoing ones: women priests (and more in general, the role of women); legal or illegal abortion, contraception and in general fertility control or enhancement; medical research; relations with other religions and those who have none. These are major issues for all of society but made more controversial within the Roman Catholic community because of the Vatican’s claim to a monopoly of the truth.

The second is a little more recent and pits those who want to keep Vatican financial transactions completely discrete and under sole Vatican supervision and those who feel that the Holy See’s own budget and its banking rules rules should be transparent and respect European regulations. The first loud episode was in the 1980s, when the Vatican bank, the Istituto per le Opere Religiose (IOR) and Banca Ambrosiana scandals blew up. Two of the protagonists met sudden and unexplained death: the bankers Michele Sindona (above left) and Roberto Calvi (below left), one poisoned in prison, the other found hanging under Blackfriars bridge in London, and the third, the head of the IOR, the hardnosed Chicago cleric, Mons. Paul Marcinkus (“You can’t run the Church on Hail Marys”) (below right), was wanted by Italian justice but escaped back to Illinois. Over the last few years, the Holy See found itself on the EU’s grey list of possible money launderers and has once again been forced to look at its own finances and how it manages its banking system. Last year, senior functionary of Vatican finance, Mons. Carlo Maria Viganò wrote to the Pope revealing both improper behaviour and serious waste (and reduced the Vatican’s budget deficit); for his pains he was removed by promotion to papal nunzio in Washington. The lay president of the IOR, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi was removed from his job in May. He alleged that it was because he wanted to know the names behind the IOR’s anonymous accounts. Over the last few years both Italian and EU banking authorities have put pressure on the Vatican to respect international banking rules or find themselves in the same company as shady offshore tax havens accused of recycling dirty money. They have begun to change but still have a long way to go and the Gabriele trial will not mention the internal debate.

The third set of cleavages is between factions following this or that cardinal or senior functionary, mostly personal (rather than ideological) power play looking to present advantage or links to a future pope. In this sense, the Vatican is still a mediæval court in which personal loyalty often trumps political positions. But with an aging pope, the debate over succession becomes more urgent but unlike other political successions, cannot be debated openly.

These are divisions that exist in any political system; what makes the Holy See’s version unique is they are played out by an organisation which sets itself up as a spiritual and ethical authority above politics. In practice it is impossible to play international politics and run a bank without getting one’s hands dirty as any Roman for the last 1,500 years well knows. In its politics the Holy See has no transparency or checks and balances and until recently, had none in its banking system so the inevitable court intrigues are inflated and distorted by a political whispering gallery which makes the real one in St. Peter’s dome seem banal. The fog that envelopes the Vatican makes the Kremlin walls (today or in Soviet times) transparent in contrast.

Finally, the present conflicts and scandals are exacerbated by a lack of firm and able leadership. The peculiarities of the papal election process mean that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church may not necessarily have a keen political sense or strong leadership skills. Joseph Ratzinger showed his lack of both early on in his papacy and even though he has dropped fewer bricks over the last few years, the contrast between him and his predecessor’s well-honed political skills is striking. In his public utterances, Benedict is earnest and wellmeaning but neither subtle nor convincing like John Paul II. In private, apparently, he has been unable to mediate between the the factions that swirl around him, something that Woytila was expert at at least until his final illness.

None of the major issues will be touched on in the Gabriele trial but there will be oblique references to them. So we are unlikely to have striking revelations though we will have a few more insights into the Vatican – it is in a transitional state, uncertain how to use contemporary media to present their case at the same time as not revealing too much. A few months ago, they took on Greg Burke, Fox News’ man in Rome to present an American-sytle media face; at the same time in contrast, witnesses are referred to as letters (A, B, C), not names and there are no cameras or court record and a limited pool of journalists.

But it will still be a trial worth following closely for what is said and for what is not said.